Kodak eyes up 3D print opportunity

Terry Taber, Kodak's chief technology officer.

Kodak has long been synonymous with film but it’s easy to forget that at its heart Kodak has really been a company that developed products based on a deep knowledge of chemistry. Now, as the film and photography world moves to digital imaging Kodak is transforming itself into a materials science developer and sees 3D printing as one avenue to explore.

Earlier this year Kodak signed a deal to develop materials for Carbon’s continuous liquid interface production, or CLIP, which is essentially a photochemical process. Nessan Cleary talked with Terry Taber, chief technology officer and a senior vice president for Kodak, who explained some of the thinking behind this. He began by saying: “We have been following the 3D printing industry for some time. Primarily our interest is around materials development.” He says that what drew Kodak to Carbon was the “opportunity to overlap significantly with an area of materials that Kodak has done work on for decades. Photo sensitive materials have been at the heart of a lot of the work that we have done in photography but also industrial polymers so that we can create light with photo sensitive processors. We also were intrigued by the capability of this process in terms of speed and flexibility around design that we haven’t seen to the detail that carbon allows.”

Taber says that Carbon has defined a set of materials that it has patents on but that there is room for other companies with specialist knowledge to add to this. He says: “We are working on the actual polymers that will build the structures. We are looking at the design of the polymers to influence the physical properties of the printed material. Sometimes we want it to be flexible or temperature resistant or fire retardent.”

Kodak is also working on additives, with Taber noting: “This is one of Kodak's strengths because we have been using additives in ink and precoating for substrates and films to get additional physical benefits like enhancing impact strength or physical durability from abrasion. In these cases it's the initiators so the rate of polymerisation so that we can complete the polymerisation process faster and then into post curing. Ultimately we want it to come out of the printer cured and ready to use. Also we are talking with Carbon about other fundamentals like conductive or anti-microbial.”

Kodak has already demonstrated the scope for adding anti-microbial particles to other materials, such as tee-shirts and for creating disposable face masks. There’s an obvious healthcare application in being able to create objects with built-in hygiene protection.

Kodak has also been working on adding conductivity to parts and has a number of approaches, including a silver-based catalyst that Taber says is not directly applicable to 3D printing today. Kodak has also tried two approaches to making silver conductive inks, including a silver iron-based ink that can be used in offset and flexo applications. The second method involves using additives to load the ink with a very high concentration of silver.

However, the problem with using silver for conductivity is that silver is a very expensive material. Consequently, most companies are trying to develop a copper-based alternative and Taber confirms that Kodak is looking at a usable copper ink, adding: “The challenge is getting enough copper in the ink so that we don't have to do multiple passes to get enough copper material on the substrate.” 

Kodak is also exploring other 3D printing processes. Taber says that the agreement with Carbon is around its CLIP technology, leaving Kodak free to develop materials for other processes such as fused deposition. He adds: “We do believe that we have materials capabilities that are useful for other 3D suppliers that use a different process from Carbon and are talking with potential suppliers.”

However, Taber rules out metal printing, saying: “The metal-based 3D printing like sintering are not one of our strengths and sciences.” But, he says that Kodak could possibly jet a metal, pointing out that the company has considerable expertise in designing printheads such as the Stream continuous inkjet heads that are the basis of Kodak’s Prosper high speed inkjet presses.


Materials science

Taber is clear that Kodak is not planning to build its own 3D printer, saying: “I have moved the direction of our R&D into a materials science-based research portfolio to really utilise our scientific strength in materials design and allow us to participate in a variety of materials solutions.”

Taber says that this technology ranges from unique materials for elements of batteries through to small particles that influence and control light, noting: “We have a particle that can block physical light. In hotels there's a light blocking material to keep the room dark but it’s a complex manufacturing process now. Our polymeric particle can replicate several layers in one layer and simplify the manufacturing process with the same manufacturing equipment so there's no extra capital investment for the mills.”

Naturally Kodak is hoping that this concentration on materials will lead to new business in a variety of different industries, including textiles, military applications and healthcare. But the attraction of 3D printing is that it covers a wide range of different industries.

So, it seems as if we’re going to be hearing a lot more from Kodak over the next few years in the 3D world. Most companies involved in additive manufacturing agree that there’s a need for a wider range of materials if the technology is really going to be a viable manufacturing alternative, and particularly ‘smart’ materials with specific properties. Kodak could just turn out to have the right technologies to supply these materials though it’s likely that Kodak’s approach will be through partnership with established players, as it has done with Carbon. 

About Nessan Cleary

Nessan Cleary started his career as a technician working in television news before retraining as a journalist. Over the last 20 years he’s become an experienced journalist and editor who has specialized in covering commercial printing, particularly digital technology. More recently he has also written about industrial printing, including additive manufacturing, from both the technology and business perspective.